Jesus tells Nicodemus at the beginning of St. John's Gospel, "Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit" (John 3:5).
Reflecting on this revelation by our Lord, the Church has always encouraged people to receive the sacrament of baptism as the surest means to receive eternal life. While stating this, the Catechism makes an important distinction. While God has bound salvation to this first sacrament, He isn't bound by the sacraments. Thus, the Church has held to two other ways through which one may receive the grace of the Sacrament of Baptism, while not receiving the sacrament itself (CCC 1257-1258).
One way is the baptism of blood. Before going to His passion and death, Jesus says, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13). Through such a loving witness of laying down one's life for Christ, an unbaptized person has won the grace of baptism, according to Church teaching.
The Church goes so far as to honor with sainthood those who have been baptized in their blood. One such example is St. Emerentiana. She lived in the early days of the Church and, we believe, knew St. Agnes. After St. Agnes was martyred, St. Emerentiana went to pray at her grave. Some people happened to catch her praying there and accused her of being a Christian. Their accusations, though, were technically false. She wasn't yet a Christian, just taking instructions before being baptized. St. Emerentiana wasn't dissuaded. She professed belief in Christ and defended St/ Agnes's witness of faith. Upon hearing this, the crowd stoned her to death. Though she was never baptized, she was baptized in her blood and is a canonized saint in the Church.
The other way to receive the grace of baptism is the baptism of desire, which may be received by two different groups of people.
For example, a person who desired baptism, enrolled in RCIA but died in a car accident before being baptized. The Church teaches that since they desired to receive this sacrament and were living a life in greater conformity to the Gospel message, they would receive the graces of this sacrament without having received it (CCC 1259).
Another case in which baptism of desire may take place is when someone lives in a culture that has never heard of Christ. While the person hadn't heard of Christ, he/she tries to live a truthful, good and upright life. In such a case, the Church teaches that the person would have sought baptism if Christ had been known, and would receive the grace of baptism at death as well.
Father Mayo is pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Warrenton. RELATED ARTICLE(S):Dear Father | Act of Contrition gets to the heart of confession